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Classroom Activities

About "Ambush in Mogadishu"



The following activities will help students explore the complexities of United States involvement in other countries. The activities link to national social studies standards, in particular, the following learning goals:

  • Understanding U.S. foreign policy as it relates to other nations and international issues;
  • Understanding world geography and the effects of geography on society;
  • Understanding events, trends, individuals and movements shaping the history of the United States and other nations.


Many complex issues arise when one analyzes international humanitarian responses to the present generation of armed conflicts. Interstate wars are difficult enough to fathom, but many intrastate (or civil) wars are mind-boggling in their cruelty and wanton destructiveness. Reflection and difficult decisions, not visceral reactions, are necessary because outside help can be counterproductive. Those who are impelled by humanitarian imperatives would argue that choosing to do nothing is never an option. Yet, the U.S. use of military power in Somalia seems to have caused more problems than it solved. Or did it?

Activity 1: Gauging American Interests

Learning Goal

Students will explore differing perspectives within the American government and body politic about the pluses and minuses of various reactions to Somalia's woes in 1992. Gone is the clarity of the Cold War era when advances by "communism" anywhere were perceived as sufficiently direct threats to justify American responses. Without an "enemy," consistency about humanitarian decision-making is more difficult because the possible justifications for involvement are more diverse. Among the factors entering calculations include geographical proximity, commercial interests, the U.S. image, reactions by the electorate, and attention from the media.


1. Break students into groups representing different perspectives and ask them to outline the pros and cons of intervening in Somalia in 1992. Possible groups could include: pacifists; members of the junior ROTC; representatives of electronic and print media; veterans of foreign wars; National Security Council staff; members of the Board of Directors of the United Nations Association; staff from a private aid agency like the International Rescue Committee or Save-the-Children. A reporter from each group should be assigned to report back to the entire class what they have identified as the goals, needs, and interests of their constituency. The results of each group's perceptions of the key factors behind a decision to intervene or not should provide interesting discussion.

2. To foster counter-factual reasoning, stop the videotape before it offers outcomes and reflections and ask students to revisit their group's initial conclusions. Avenues to explore would be whether acting to prevent this or similar disasters would be more cost-effective and humane, and what the political constraints would be of acting sooner rather than later.

3. A variation on the above is to assign a "point-of-view" essay to reflect any of the constituency positions or alternatively to explore more personal reactions such as that of a sibling of a soldier killed in combat or a soldier who survived and was interviewed. Although the views of Somalis are not the focus of the video (which some observers might label a shortcoming), students could also be asked to write about the reactions of a Somali mother whose child either was saved from starvation or was killed in the U.S. Ranger raid.

4. Have students consider under which circumstances and at which moments outsiders can or should intervene in a crisis. Have them compare and contrast the following three situations:

After World War II, allied troops remained in West Berlin for 45 years until the old order changed dramatically with the fall of the Berlin Wall;

After a decade of occupation by federal soldiers of the former Confederacy after the American Civil War, the troops withdrew and the old order reemerged;

In mid-1998, famine threatened one million people in Sudan due to drought, overpopulation, and incessant civil war over 35 years, during which belligerents have consistently used both hunger and relief aid for their own tactical ends while no outside intervention occurred.

Activity 2: Looking Before Leaping

Learning Goal

Students will explore whether and why understanding local contexts could help avoid ineffective actions by outside humanitarians, either civilian or military personnel. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians describes charity as the greatest of virtues. Yet contemporary humanitarian crises are too complex for altruism alone. Although the temptation to respond viscerally to suffering victims is understandable and indeed laudable in many cases, counterproductive efforts by aid workers and soldiers in Somalia and elsewhere illustrate the need to analyze specific situations before jumping automatically into the fray. Responding to an earthquake or flood is easier than responding to a civil war, as is rebuilding an economy and infrastructure after a natural rather than a man-made disaster.


1. The Somalia case illustrates problems that are not unique. Break the class into groups to brainstorm about the pluses and minuses of several recent acute choices faced by humanitarians of all stripes and of the solutions that they adopted:

In Zaire (now Congo) in 1994-1995, humanitarians relied upon local community leaders to accelerate food and medical distribution to over a million refugees from Rwanda. But this cost-conscious and relatively effective approach also strengthened the hand of the genocidaires (those responsible for the slaughter who maintained control within refugee camps.)

In Bosnia for much of the period from 1992 to 1995, humanitarians often faced two options: moving endangered populations and helping to foster the despicable policy of "ethnic cleansing," or assisting people in so-called safe havens (perhaps the most dangerous spots in the Balkans) and thereby eventually making some of them "well-fed dead."

In Afghanistan, humanitarians have had either to leave or to compromise with the Taliban who forbid women to work, insist that they dress in the all-enveloping chador, bar girls from education beyond elementary school, and maintain separate and inferior (or non-existent) facilities for women's health.

In virtually all recent civil wars, humanitarians have been obliged to maintain good relations with local authorities in order to have access to victims. As such, humanitarians have had to keep quiet about human rights abuse or offer bribes (a form of "tax") to authorities and look the other way as soldiers took "their share" of aid, which thereby contributed to the conflict.

2. There is no right or wrong answer in such thorny decision making. The mathematics are tortuous and the calculations far from exact. Individuals or groups should research the country situation and the precise moment under discussion in order to contextualize the difficulties of weighing various options and then making painful choices. Students should be reminded that crises or other crucial world events taking place at the same time often contribute to or detract from possible international or U.S. actions.

3. One possible approach to the discussion might explore the difference between "dilemmas" and "quandaries." This type of decision making is quite different from the more pleasant "choices" between or among attractive options or even difficult choices between or among less desirable options. A dilemma involves two or more alternative courses of action with unintended but unavoidable and equally undesirable consequences, while a quandary is a difficult situation in which the lesser of two evils can be determined. If consequences are equally unpalatable, then remaining inactive on the sidelines is an understandable alternative to entering the scrum on the battlefield. But when humanitarians find themselves perplexed, they are not and should not be immobilized. The solution is not withdrawal, but rather appropriate engagement. The key lies in making a good faith effort to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of different alloys of politics and humanitarianism, and then to choose what often amounts to the least-worst option.

Activity 3: Starting and Engaging in Discussion

Learning Goal

Students will explore a wide range of personal and political reactions to various aspects raised explicitly or implicitly by the video. "Ambush in Mogadishu" provides many opportunities to explore with students a multitude of such issues.


1. use the following questions to engage students in far-ranging discussions:

  • What has changed and what has remained the same in the nature of humanitarian crises and of international responses to them during and after the Cold War?
  • Can military responses that temporarily foster humanitarian access to victims ultimately result in more violent societies?
  • What obligation does the United States or any other country have to intervene in wars where atrocities are widespread? Should domestic priorities and problems closer to home take precedence over humanitarian crises elsewhere?
  • Should Americans have a different attitude toward the casualties sustained in overseas military operations now that there are volunteer and professional soldiers rather than conscripts in combat?
  • Is it a preferable strategy to be impartial (and treat all needy persons equally) or to choose the "right" side?
  • Why do some crises tug heart- and purse-strings while others, with even proportionately greater suffering, are greeted with deafening silence? In particular, what role does media coverage play in determining appropriate international responses to the hungry and fearful?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of not intervening in ethnic wars and allowing warring factions to slug it out and become tired of conflict?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of Washington working multilaterally (for instance, through the United Nations or NATO) rather than unilaterally (that is, on its own)?

2. After exploring some of the preceding questions through a general class discussion, have students develop one or more of the following:

  • military, humanitarian, or political criteria about when and where to intervene;
  • guidelines to determine appropriate levels of military intervention, including the feasibility of multilateral or unilateral action;
  • a list of opportunities and constraints governing contributions to reconciliation and post-conflict development in war-torn countries.

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